fashion

For these Muslim and Jewish women, 'modest fashion' isn't what you think it is.

It was New York Fashion Week, 2016. 

Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan was the first designer to present a collection where every woman on her runway wore a hijab. 

It was a moment for ‘modest fashion’. It had arrived in the mainstream. 

At that time, the State of the Islamic Economy Report revealed that Muslims alone had spent US $230 billion on fashion in the past year. By 2024, that number is projected to reach $402 billion. 

Since 2016, Nike released its first ever high-performance hijab for Muslim female athletes, and fashion superpowers Zara, Mango, Net-a-Porter and DKNY have all launched Ramadan collections.

And more recently, The Iconic and Boohoo established Modest Edits too. 

While the modest fashion is a movement of many, it is also incredibly individualised - interpreted differently by each woman. 

In this article, we talk to Jewish and Muslim women who wear and design modest fashion: Orthodox Jewish sisters, Simi Polonsky Hoffman and Chaya Chanin, founders and designers of modest label  The Frock NYC, and Muslim woman Yasmin Jay, fashion influencer and designer of her label by the same name. 

Simi Polonsky Hoffman and Chaya Chanin model a look from their modest fashion label, The Frock NYC.


Video via YouTube.

Dressing modestly - or tzniut - is a value held by many Orthodox Jewish women.

While interpretations may vary amongst sects and communities, 'dressing tzniut' generally means covered knees, elbows and collarbones. Married women may also cover their hair with a wig (sheitl), scarf or hat.

Orthodox sisters and fashion designers Chaya Chanin and Simi Polonsky Hoffman are the daughters of a rabbi, and were born and raised in the Sydney beachside suburb of Coogee. 

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“Simi had a love for fashion from birth,” Chaya, 37, tells Mamamia over the phone from her home in the Chasidic Chabad community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. 

Simi, 36, chimes in, recalling a time when she was a young girl and she and her mother butted heads over fashion.

It was the Jewish festival of Sukkot. Simi and Chaya’s mum bought them floral dresses and matching hats to wear to the synagogue where their parents served.

Simi says, “We always went, and we always needed to be dressed well. But my mum bought these dresses for us to wear, and I was like, not a chance am I wearing this.”

“I cried and cried and cried, and my mum said 'you’re not coming unless you wear it'. So, I didn’t come down for the meal. I didn’t go to shule (synagogue). Mum and I were in a gridlock: she wanted me to wear it, and I was not going to,” she says with a laugh.

“That’s where my decisiveness [when it comes to] fashion came out.”

As the sisters grew into their teens, their unique fashion expression developed further. While their classmates were heading to Target and Sportsgirl for the same long-sleeved tees and long denim skirts, they were going to the markets.

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“We’d find a mini dress and add lace to it to make it knee length,” says Chaya. “It became a creative pursuit to be unique and different, but to be within fashion. Not just buying a denim skirt that’s knee length because it’s easy.”

But it wasn’t until they were in their 20s that Simi and Chaya took their passion to another level. 

They were both newly married when they found themselves living in the US, working jobs they didn’t love. Chaya was in New York selling luxury watches, while Simi was in Cleveland earning $9.75 an hour in retail.

Chaya was on her lunch break one day, chatting on the phone with Simi when it happened.

“We were like, why are we doing these jobs? We can make something for ourselves,” she recalls.

“And I think we always dreamed that for ourselves. To make it big in some way.”

Simi and her husband moved to Crown Heights, and before long, she and Chaya began to be noticed for their unique style: modest, but modern, with an edge.

It had a “chilled” vibe - reminiscent of the Australian surf culture they grew up amongst. And they weren’t afraid to experiment with colours, bold accessories and layering pieces in interesting ways. 

Simi also nudged the boundaries by wearing jeans - pants are traditionally a no-no in tzniyut - but she still wore a dress over the top. It literally started a trend. 

From there they decided to start a pop-up consignment business of modest designer clothing. They raided thrift stores, and the closets of a handful of stylish Orthodox women they knew to curate a collection. The Frock NYC was born.

There was no such thing as Instagram promotion then. Instead, they cut up a Vogue magazine to create a collage flyer, made copies, and stuck them to lamp posts throughout Crown Heights. 

“Our husbands were carrying the clothes in big garbage bags,” Simi says, reflecting on the first pop-up. 

It was a major success. Over 200 women attended - “and we made thousands of dollars that night”. 

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After two years of pop-ups, Chaya and Simi decided to launch their own line of clothes. 

The aesthetic is easy and effortless, grounded mainly in neutral colours, loose silhouettes and versatile design. 

And now, they’ve been featured in Vogue.

“The Frock is not just a business, it has become a lifestyle, a movement and a community that is way beyond us,” enthuses Simi.

Chaya and Simi's advice for finding your modest style.

When creating a modest look, Chaya reflects that her style has become much more simplistic than in her 20s, and is "really about leaning towards things that just make you feel good or fun."

For Simi, it’s all about the “artful layering”. Her current favourite look in the heat of New York’s summer is The Frock’s Boheme maxi oversized gauze dress, which she often wears open, teamed with pants and a tank.

“I’m a mum, and I’m always moving, so it’s got to be easy, comfortable, washable and chic.”

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“It’s all about fusing fashion and our faith," say the sisters. And helping other women - Jewish or not - to find a way to express their identity in a way that is true to them.

Listen to Simi talk on a more personal side of her life with Mia Freedman on No Filter.

“Modesty is really an authentic avenue of self expression for us because it really reflects our beliefs," Simi says.

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*****

Yasmin Jay was 18 when she first touched a sewing machine. 

Now 23, the Sydney-based Muslim woman and fashion influencer has her own modest fashion label - also named Yasmin Jay.

“When I finished high school, I knew that I wanted to pursue something creative,” she tells Mamamia

She decided to study fashion design, "one of the best decisions I ever made."

“I always had a passion for clothing and always had a passion to style, but I never felt like I really had someone to look up to in the media or on social media that I could relate to - a modest woman who wears a hijab.”

But the term ‘modest woman’ doesn't sit comfortably with Yasmin - “because I believe that modesty is defined in so many different ways. And everyone has an interpretation of what it is".

Her version? 

“An empowered woman who chooses to cover herself in a certain way.”

Yasmin’s intent to create in that vein was fuelled by a drive to show young girls who looked like her that just because they wear a scarf and dress modestly, doesn’t mean you can’t make it - on your own terms.

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Launched just last year, Yasmin Jay the label features pieces that are modern and relaxed, yet elevated.

The challenge, reflects Yasmin, is to ensure her designs meet her interpretation of modesty: that every garment is full length, and skin is covered from high neck, to the wrist and ankles, and that fabrics aren’t transparent. 

Yasmin's approach to modest style.

“It’s important to tell a story through your clothing. That’s how I express myself," she says.

Yasmin’s Lebanese background is central to that narrative. Throughout her life, she has paid many visits to Lebanon. It's the juxtaposition of her Middle-Eastern roots against contemporary Australia which manifests in her design - “meshing into one”. 

She points to her Lost Fortress collection - which features a black and gold brocade statement print that she “absolutely loves”. It’s the hero of various pieces in the collection, including pants, blazers, sweaters and even bucket hats.

The pattern itself was inspired by the ruins of destroyed castles in Lebanon, says Yasmin.

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“I think there is a perception that fashion and religion - or Islam - are two separate entities, which I don't think is the case."

“Everything that I do is always conformed to my religious beliefs. But a lot of my culture is also immersed in that too.” 

Another common misconception Yasmin has encountered is that women who choose to dress modestly are 'oppressed'. 

“We all have free will as to how we live our lives, and the choices we make. It’s easy to say that someone is controlled by a religion; but it’s just as easy to say [that] someone else is controlled by the unrealistic beauty standards that you see on social media.”

“We all have something that leads and influences us.”

She calls out inaccurate media representation as one of the major factors that lead to misunderstandings around dressing modestly as a Muslim woman, reiterating her drive to represent the truth of her community.

“It sounds cliché, but don’t judge a book by its cover," she says.

“When I hear people say things that are negative or disregard what modest fashion is, or comments like, ‘She’s Muslim, but she's in fashion, and they don't go together’, I'd like to say, have you met a Muslim woman? That's my biggest question, because people form these opinions without even having a conversation… I just want to be like, have a chat with me!”

And being 'modest' is not just about the way you dress, Yasmin adds. 

“It's about the way you carry yourself, the way you treat people, what you do in your free time, all of these things kind of come together. Those values also intertwine with the fashion.”

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A few months ago, Yasmin Jay was launched on The Iconic - and with that has seen new customers from far beyond her community. 

She’s excited, but one of the most rewarding things is when someone much older loves her fashion and feels inspired, Yasmin says.

“First generation Australians, especially Muslim Arab women, never really had the opportunities they have now. They definitely faced a lot more racism compared to what I have, so I think it shows we’re making moves, and making a change.”

*****

Shop 'The Modest Edit' look.

Nicole Adolphe is Head of Style at The Iconic. She tells Mamamia what's trending in The Modest Edit.

Base Layers.

"The lightweight turtleneck top and base layers in a wide array of colours are a popular choice as [they] can be worn under everything."

Shop: American Vintage Turtleneck T-Shirt

Shop: Mod Squad Luxes Long Basic Base Layer (pictured)

Image: The Iconic. 

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Wide legged pants.

"Blazers and loose fitting wide leg pants with a high neck top underneath is on trend this season and also suitable for a modest dresser. This season’s jean and pant cut is wide leg instead of slim, which is a welcome addition to the modest wardrobe as it’s loose on the thigh area."

Shop: Remain Birger Christensen Kise Pants

Shop: Lover Nicola Pants (pictured)

Image: The Iconic. 

Statement high neck dresses.

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"Puff sleeve high neck long dresses in prints or plains in fabrics like linen or silk are also the perfect addition to the wardrobe worn with boots."

Shop: Veil of Faith Amira Dress

Shop: Alemais Shirtdress (pictured)

Image: The Iconic. 

Trench coats.

"Lightweight jackets of all styles for layering are a must. For this reason the trench coat and the blazer are key items."

Shop: French Connection Coated Trench Coat

Shop: Shona Joy Matilda Trench Coat (pictured)

Image: The Iconic. 

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The oversized shirt.

"The oversized shirt has been a favourite [lately] as it's loose fitting and a layering piece can easily be worn underneath. Corsets (plain corsets, not the lace kind) are also popular as a layering piece with the younger modest dresser, worn over a t-shirt or long sleeve shirt and a jacket over the top."

Shop: Blanca Winona Shirt (pictured)

Image: The Iconic. 

To read more from Rebecca Davis, you can find her articles here or follow her on Instagram.

Feature Image: Instagram/Mamamia.

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